Sussex University branches of the University and College Union (UCU) and Unite have both returned large majorities for strikes against outsourcing in indicative ballots.
UCU members vote returned a 75% majority on a 60% turnout, and the Unite ballot returned a 93% majority on a 70% turnout. Unison, which conducted a “membership survey” on industrial action, has yet to release its results. They are due on Thursday 9 May, but many workers say they have yet to receive their papers so are fighting for an extension in order to allow them to vote.
Workers could strike against the outsourcing of 235 jobs at the university, mainly from the lowest-paid sectors of the Sussex workforce including cleaners, catering staff, porters, and security workers. The Sussex Against Privatisation campaign, which involves workers and students, has staged occupations and other direct actions on campus, including a months-long occupation of Bramber House which lasted from 7 February to 2 April. There have also been demonstrations of several hundred on campus in support of the occupiers and against privatisation. A national demonstration on 25 March mobilised 2,000 people.
Central to the recent mobilisations has been the ‘Pop-Up Union’.
The Pop-Up Union is a new body on campus open to all workers, of any grade, which has given rank-and-file workers a vehicle through which to coordinate and organise when official trade unions, particularly Unison, have been sluggish. An activist involved told Solidarity:
“Whilst staff had previously been very active and militant in the initial stages of the campaign, their engagement had dissipated with the passing of time.
“What was once a militant membership pushing for strike action, became a disheartened membership that was rapidly decreasing in numbers. Industrial action of any kind had been effectively wiped off the internal discussions of Unison, and the leadership was wholeheartedly committed to negotiating the ‘best deal for their members’ regardless of what may be lost in the process. The other two unions followed suit, and the focus of the established trade unions on campus was effectively diverted away from campaigning towards negotiations.
“We need to be critical of trade union bureaucracies when that is needed, and work with them when we can. At Sussex, we have done both. Even today, the Pop-Up Union is actively [...] encouraging members to join unions to fight from within. However, the struggle at Sussex has also highlighted the fact that sometimes, when the bureaucracy refuses to move, the workers can move themselves.
“Temporary trade unions can never be long-term solutions to a bureaucratised trade union movement. They can, however, be the appropriate tools for pushing the movement forward and potentially securing victories at a time when the labour movement so desperately needs one.”
A timetable for official strikes at Sussex has yet to be discussed. The Pop-Up Union has begun collecting money for a hardship fund for the 235, which so far has collected over £800.
• Adriano Merota from the University of Sussex was speaking to Daniel Lemberger Cooper from Solidarity.